Our road trip started on May 14th from the busy streets of Quito where we hopped into our rented 2010 Chevy Vitara and started to meander through the honking traffic towards the South. Ivan was driving and trying not to let his road rage get out of control, and Kristin was calming his nerves down as well as spotting the poorly placed roadsigns (if any at all) to get us out of the city. Steve was being a really good sport in the back of the car, or likely, reluctantly surrendered his life into the hands of the speeding motorists around him. Breaching the edge of the city was a relief as the dirty city blocks gave way to lush green mountainous farmland all around us. We drove about 4 hours and arrived in the city of Quilatoa – known for the massive volcanic crater in everyone’s backyard. The city was incredibly cold (we were at about 4000 meters, or 13,000 feet), but we found a cozy hostel with decent food and fireplaces in our room. We woke up early, geared up, and headed towards the crater. Ivan met a couple young students from a neighboring town who ‘interviewed’ him for a school project and let him snap photos of them. It was a fun exchange. Heading down into the crater, we continually had to stop to snap more photos of the turquoise water. It was steep, but a great hike. On the way up Kristin and Steve were able to hire a burro and a horse to hike them out of the crater. The young boys leading the horses were very energetic, but would hang on to the mangy animals tails to help pull them up the hill. It was an enigmatic 3rd world procession back up the trail, with lanky gringo Ivan struggling to keep up despite the lung-heaving elevation.
After the crater we drove back to the Pan-American highway and headed south towards Baños – the city of geothermal baths and relaxation. We decided to stay in a more upscale place with thermal baths and a nice cabaña that had a view of the city. A great way to mellow out and soak in some sulfur.
Instead of continuing down the Pan-American, we decided to drop down into the Amazon basin. The drive down from the Andes (we went down about 2,000 meters in elevation) was incredible. Despite the buses passing on blind-curves and giving us repeated heart palpations, the drive was stunning. There were waterfalls cascading from rock outcroppings on almost every corner, and the vividness of the green mountainsides can’t be described. We stopped many times for photos, and even some comida tipica. We continued east until Puyo, and then bee lined south through the middle of the jungle. It felt as though the jungle would reach in and devour the road – the energy of the jungla was impressive! A highlight on our drive south was seeing countless young children lining the roads (not the best playspot…). Wondering what they were doing, we soon got our answer when we passed an ice-cream truck, and every child after that point was happily slurping on their bright pink refreshing cones. A small taste of jungle life! We continued on for many, many kilometers, passing small communities, men with machetes or rifles, women carrying heavy loads of cane sugar stalks (almost everyone was chewing the raw cane), and countless children working or playing. After a full day of driving, we arrived in Mendez, a small nondescript town, where we found a small hotel with a swimming pool to escape the humidity. The night swim was a great way to wind down from the drive.
The following day we got an early start and continued South towards Zamora. Unfortunately we encountered heavy road construction, which transformed our smooth jungle road into a 250km bumpy ride through mud, streams, and speeding dump trucks. It was quite a process to witness, but would have been more enjoyable if it was shorter. We all heaved a sigh of relief when we rediscovered the pavement and sped with windows down towards Zamora. We made a stop to get some cane taffy and the raw stalks. Our dentists will likely groan when they see our teeth from chewing on the juicy raw caña. We passed through Zamora and continued on to Loja. Unfortunately we didn’t have time for the beautiful city of Loja, but we instead headed south into the ‘valley of longevity,’ also called Vilcabamba. We saw more gringos than wrinkled ancient Vilcabambinos, but the valley was stunning, and the hostel Kristin directed us to was phenomenal. That night was grabbed a bottle of wine, toasted the progress of our long journey, and enjoyed a really great dinner while overlooking the small city of Vilcabamba.
Our first morning, Ivan and Kristin took off for the mountains to do some exploring. The hike was hot and exposed, but it was very impressive. The mountains we a light shade of green, and very steep, but reaching the top was rewarding. We did read in the trail guide that there was a good chance of getting lost, oh, and death. How bad could it be? Well, for someone with debilitating vertigo (ahem, Ivan!), it turned out that death was in fact a very likely outcome. Kristin danced along the narrow ridge trail, completely unaffected by the steep drops on each side of the trail – meanwhile Ivan was either crawling or walking hunched over with eyes fixed straight ahead… In the safer areas we were able to take photos and enjoy the phenomenal panoramic vista around us. Pura Vida! After an exhausting 5 hour hike, Steve surprised us was a couples massage – our first one on our trip! How could it get better? After our muscles got royal treatment, we drove down into Vilcabamba town and ate some decent Mexican food (decent because it has nothing on authetic Mexicano food in Cali, but probably the best Mexican food we’ve had in our 8 months of travel). The good company was even more fulfilling that the fajitas and burritos!
The following day we drove 40 minutes down the road to check out Parque Nacional Podocarpus. Unfortunately, the there aren’t any more of the namesake podocarpus trees (likely made into the furniture we sat on during breakfast that morning), but the cloud-forest park was stunning. We had the gravel road that snaked its way up the steep mountain all to ourselves. The trails were well marked, muddy, and teeming with all kinds of beautiful plants and trees. We hiked up to the panoramic view at the top and were able to see Loja to the north, Vilcabamba to the south, and many other small towns. A very beautiful part of our green planet!
After 3 nights in Vilcabamba, we hopped back into our gutless Chevy steed and headed north to Cuenca. The mountain drive was typical driving for Ecuador, but nothing like was we have in California (CA’s highest point is Mt. Whitney at 12,500 ft, and we were driving far above this altitude with many more mountains reaching much higher than that all around us. We arrived in Cuenca by noon, and grabbed a great typical lunch in the main plaza. Steve was very impressed with the colonial architecture and beautiful churches. Cuenca is Ecuador’s oldest city and has evidence of the Spaniards heavy-handed influence in every brick in the centro histrorico of the city. After lunch we walked through the Cathedral Nuevo, which is the endemic giant brick structure with the bright blue tiled dome roof. There was a mass taking place when we entered, which made it all the more impressive. Heading deeper into the city, we took Steve to our Otovalo connection – a very friendly vendor of artesanias. Antonio, his daughter, and his small granddaughter were all very grateful for our repeat business, and Steve was wide-eyed excited about the beautiful rugs, blankets, tablecloths, and other handmade goods he got for a phenomenal price. Our last stop in the city was the Panama hat museum, where Ivan and Steve got some stylish new headgear. It was a fun day of shopping in one of Ecuador’s most authentic cities. As much as we wanted to stay, we had to jump back into the car and continue north. We found a small valley city were we stopped out of exhaustion and spent the night in a seedy hotel with loud music and dirty towels. Sleep tends to make things pardonable….
Our last morning we woke up and looked in shock at the place we had stayed in… Oh well! We packed into the car and headed with excitement to Parque Nacional Chimborazo. Unfortunately, our excitement soon turned into frustration as we got lost in the hills around Riobamba from lack of signs and bad planning. Taking a collective deep breath, we did as we knew best, asked 25 different people for directions, which led us to Ecuador’s highest peak (asking less the 10 people is a statistical risk since most people have NO CLUE but will give confident directions anyway). When we pulled into the parking lot at the top of the park, we where at an impressive 4800 meters (just shy of 16,000 ft!!!). Putting on all the warm clothes we had, we started hiking up the steep trail. The trail was just over a kilometer long and gained 200 meters of elevation, it was a struggle. Steve, being the strong mountain man of the group arrived at the top first, while Ivan brought up the rear wheezing like an asthmatic sumo wrestler running the hundred yard dash with a wad full of cotton in his mouth and snot streaming down to his chin. It wasn’t pretty. At 5,000 meters we got snowed on and also had the equatorial sun beating down on us. Who would have thought there could be snow on the equator?! The refugio at the top had a smoky fire and some delicious hot chocolate. Ivan befriended a hardcore hiker who was trecking up to the summit that evening with 3 of his friends. The summit is over 6,300 meters (21,000 feet)!! Pretty hardcore. We hiked back down, and low and behold, the clouds cleared for 5 minutes and we were offered stunning views of the glacier at the top of the mountain!! It couldn’t have been timed better. We felt very fortunate and accomplished. Hiking back down we then drove down the massive mountain, waved goodbye to our furry vicuña pals, and headed up the road to Quito. Craving a hot shower and comfortable beds we bit the bullet and drove all the way back to the Peñaherra household. What a trip!!